AWP 2014: The Memoir Today
March 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
The Peculiar Yesterday: The Memoir Today, an AWP 2014 panel guest-blogged by Jamie J. Barker:
For this session, I made sure to get there early, refusing to spend another hour and 15 minutes sitting on the floor, as I had in the prior session, unable to see anything other than the sweater-covered butt of the woman in front of me. It was a nice enough posterior, but I became entirely too familiar with the patterns of her sweater, and couldn’t begin to tell you what the panelists looked like.
This session that focused on memoir and the “chimeric autobiographies and the cultural implications of literary transmutation” was not as well-attended, but those of us who were there had chosen wisely.
Debra DiBlasi (of Jaded Ibis Press) moderated, introducing the panelists who were there to discuss that “sticky and whimsical thing that is remembering.”
Cris Mazza, author of Various Men who Knew us as Girls (Emergency Press, 2011), described her writing as often being “something she herself needed to read.” She told us a bit of her struggle: “I was trying to say something,” Mazza said. “but it seemed no one could hear me, even myself.”
Most encouraging to this writer (still fumbling around at how I will write my hesitant memoir) was Mazza’s realization that while writing her book, “something happened and it became the book it was supposed to be.”
Jane Rosenberg LaForge, author of An Unsuitable Princess, regaled us with a visual presentation that coincided with her very energetic narrative; we were treated to images of a seemingly random assortment (Cheech and Chong, Led Zeppelin, David Foster Wallace, Wait Until Dark, S. I. Hayakawa and more), though they are not random to her. LaForge began her presentation telling us that “A lot of writing starts with strange, oblique associations.” We learned that the movie Shoot the Moon was about her family (“Sort of”) and that LaForge herself is “more interested in dealing with other people’s demons.”
I found her commentary on the woman who is “vulnerable, so she is attractive” very interesting. Wait Until Dark and Patch of Blue—both stories of blind women who are either victimized or terrorized—were excellent examples of this unfortunate trope. At some point she mentioned establishing herself as “a scholar and a smartass,” and I think she did both quite admirably.
Dawn Raffel described her memoir The Secret Life of Objects, which was a Wall Street Journal bestseller, as an “accidental memoir.” Her illustrated exploration of “items of uncertain origin” had her writing like a house on fire,” and wondering “if this is a book.”
Part of what Raffel wanted to tell her audience is that there is beauty in the ordinary. “I had no extreme trauma in my life, nothing extraordinary about my family,” she said.
Yet her book is quite extraordinary. She writes about the mundane objects that are not mundane because of the emotional connections we have with them, and the stories they bring to our minds. She said she has trouble remembering her father’s voice, but she has his hat. “It holds my father for me,” she said.
As a woman who has her grandfather’s shirt tucked in a drawer, folded neatly into a ziplock bag (to preserve the smell of him), I understood Raffel’s message, and also believe in the treasure and value of those simple objects.
Anna Joy Springer, author of The Vicious Red Relic, Love: A Fabulist Memoir, in contrast to Raffel, said “I could write for the rest of my life about fucking trauma.” I could have live-tweeted so much of what she said, had I not been scribbling away furiously in my notebook to get it all down. “I don’t care about narratives of redemption,” “In narrative land all things happen in the time of the story,” and “There’s a difference between making writing and creating literature,” are just a few of her great quotes.
Springer is a visual artist as well as a narrative writer. She also gave her audience a lot to see and consider with Goldie: A Neurotic Woman, an early feminist comic that bloomed out of the sexual revolution and was not totally loved by feminists, though our audience seemed to enjoy her quite a bit. Springer entreated us to consider that “the way we’ve been using ‘queer’ in literature might not be accurate,” and also to consider the misunderstandings of what is called “the perverse.”
Debra DiBlasi spoke briefly towards the end—we had just about run out of time, which was too bad, because I could have listened to her for a lot longer. She advised us to “follow the book where it wants to go.” She looks for honesty and integrity in writing, which “can sometimes bring [her] to tears.”
When looking for places to publish our work, DiBlasi suggests “finding someone who isn’t just looking at the bottom line,”and to “write out of who you are, and do the work.”
A question was raised from the audience: “Is there ever going to be another word we can use besides memoir?”
DiBLasi laughed. “Trust me,” she said. “I know where you’re coming from. And I don’t know when the labels will go away, but it’ll a long time coming, unfortunately. “
Jamie J. Barker is graduating from Fresno State’s MFA program (home of The Normal School), and is a nonfiction writer working at blending her own story with those of the people she encounters, primarily in the ghetto neighborhood where she has worked for 15 years, and her students in the county jail, who surprise and delight her continuously.
AWP 2014: Some Notes on Memoir (Mostly) from Fiction Writers
March 1, 2014 § Leave a comment
A guest post from Zach Jacobs on a perplexing memoir panel:
I scribbled, jotted, tried to keep up. And of course, I couldn’t. I couldn’t seem to match stride with the panelists, any panelists. I wanted to simply listen, simply be there in the cramped rooms, smiling, nodding, sometimes laughing. But my primary focus was on notes because I don’t trust my memory. As I sat through three panels on the first day of AWP 2014, I was scribbling, jotting, trying to keep up. Always getting a little too attached to one phrase or sentence, attempting to get it down word for word and, more often than not, failing.
So I was surprised when I attended an afternoon panel called “The Peculiar Yesterday: The Memoir Today.” Moderated by Debra DiBlasi of Jaded Ibis Press, it featured four authors who discussed their experimental memoirs. Cris Mazza presented a description of her book, Something Wrong with Her: A Real-Time Memoir, a work that preserves the process of its own creation, its transformation and the simultaneous effects of its generation on the author’s life and her life on its composition, as she seeks to examine her unfulfilling sex life. Jane Rosenberg LaForge formed her presentation into the structure of her memoir, An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir, in which she presents, through oblique association, the “most honest and intimate self-portrait” that she could, the portrait of her imagination as she grew up in Hollywood at the dawn of Hippydom. Dawn Raffel walked us through the process of creating The Secret Life of Objects: A Memoir, a collection of seemingly mundane but meaningful objects that have accreted around her throughout life, which are illustrated by her son, and through which she explores connections, memories, and meaning. Finally, in discussing The Vicious Red Relic, Love: A Fabulist Memoir, Anna Joy Springer delved not only into the impetus for this work—the death of her lover—but also the cultural influences from which she has produced her genre-blurring “grotesque,” a work of “experimental spiritual auto-ethnography.”
But I wasn’t surprised by the experimental memoirs or the processes that led to their composition and publication. I wasn’t surprised that Debra DiBlasi had chosen to publish these books because she found in them “a person, an individual, an honesty, an integrity.” I was surprised that, as I listened to the presentations, I began to take notes not on what was being said, but what was implied about memoir. I began to write things like “memoir as last resort? As springboard for getting other work [i.e., fiction] published?” “Memoir as accidental composition?” Only Anna Joy Springer self-identified as a memoirist, while Cris Mazza, Jane Rosenberg LaForge, and Dawn Raffel were primarily fiction writers, and LaForge had brought up some of the problems and questions I began to write, but the overwhelming feeling that I got as I listened to the first three panelists was that memoir was just what its critics have said about it, and what the first three panelists perhaps unintentionally perpetuated: navel-gazing and self-indulgent, which is to say, less than. Of course this view ignores the fact that memoir has a prominent spot on bookshelves because it is a place to explore the human condition, a point of connection for a kind of animal that is, by virtue of its consciousness, given to loneliness.
I walked away from the panel very much interested in the books that were discussed and in Jaded Ibis Press, but also a bit, well, jaded at the fact that, while none of the panelists openly derided memoir or creative nonfiction as a genre, some of them seemed to do it in the ways that they talked about memoir. But perhaps I’m just being defensive and overly sensitive about a genre that I admire and practice. Perhaps it’s just me.
Zach Jacobs is a Presidential Graduate Fellow at the University of Nebraska – Omaha, where he is finishing his MA in English with a concentration in creative nonfiction. His work has been published in Fine Lines.
Not Dead Yet
August 2, 2013 § 1 Comment
New Pages has announced the death of Brevity Poetry Review and we’ve received a few questions as a result. No, this is not us, and no, we are in no way affiliated, and yes, we are alive and strong as ever. See you in September with a new issue, featuring:
Ira Sukrungruang, Cris Mazza, Jill Talbot, Scott Russell Morris, Mary Jones, Garnett Kilberg Cohen, Lisa Knopp, Amy Wright, Kathryn Miller, Kent Shaw, Sally Ashton, Sejal Shah, Tami Mohamed Brown, Paul Crenshaw, and Karen Salyer McElmurray
Here is the New Pages announcement: